Aftershock (Tang Shan Da Di Zhen) is Feng Xiaogang‘s epic about the 1976 Tangshan earthquake that killed over 1/4 million people. Adapted from the historical novel by a Toronto resident and Tangshan expat (she was there to eloquently introduce), the film is a bit of revisionist history (but isn’t all history continually revised?). It sure is a tear-jerker though, and a huge box-office tear-jerker at that. I loved Feng Xiaogang’s A World Without Thieves, but this one is quite different. Imagine the titanic sinking in the first half-hour of the movie. That’s what happens here, which is why it’s titled Aftershock and not Earthquake.
The film is really about the aftermath of the disaster, framed as a family drama spanning generations. In the midst of the rescue, a mother, who has already lost her husband, has to make a terrible choice about which of her two children to save. The implications of her choice and the ultimate resolution of the film all follow from this dilemma.
The valuation of sons over daughters in Chinese culture is a major theme here and is a fascinating subject in itself. The film though, leaving so much out of the historical and social context, is left a but thin.